By Mark Corbett
I thank God that the SBC continues to take a clear, public stand against racism in all forms. We have come a long ways, but tragically there are still pockets of racism in our churches and roots of racism in our hearts. I know. I got hurt by it. What follows is a slightly edited excerpt from an article which originally appeared on my blog. The story I share took place from 2011 to 2013.
I’ve seen lots of examples of racism. We saw some examples when my wife and I chose to move into an all black neighborhood for our last year at Seminary in Columbia, SC (the racism was not directed at us, our neighbors received us well). We saw examples of racism between different races during our fourteen years in Indonesia. They were literally killing each other. But we were not directly and personally hurt by those examples.
I lived with my family for 14 years in a Muslim majority nation. We constantly shared the love and truth of Jesus with our neighbors despite danger and opposition. Who would have thought that my family and I would suffer more from members of the church I pastored my first two years back in the US than we were ever hurt by our Muslim neighbors? But that’s what happened.
Before I accepted the call at that church I shared my vision with them in both writing and in person. One part of that vision was focused on overcoming racial barriers. Here is exactly what I wrote, except that I have changed the name of the church to simply “our church”:
***** Start of excerpt from vision paper I shared with my previous church ******
The Samaritans did not live far from Jesus’ disciples. The reason the Samaritans were more difficult to reach had nothing to do with geographic distance. The Samaritans presented a special challenge to Jesus’ first group of disciples (who were initially all Jews) because there was a history of racial conflict between the Jews and Samaritans. Because of this history there was prejudice and hatred and mistrust on both sides between the Jews and the Samaritans. Although they lived near each other, they lived mostly separate lives.
Despite the background of hostility, Jesus specifically included the Samaritans as a group that His disciples were to reach. More than this, Jesus Himself set the example when he broke cultural norms by ministering to the Samaritan woman and later her whole village. Jesus also told the parable of “The Good Samaritan”.
In some ways the situation between the Samaritans and Jews in Israel 2,000 years ago is similar to the situation between whites and blacks in North Carolina today. There is a history of injustice which has left deep feelings of mistrust and conflict. However, this analogy is not perfect because many African Americans have been strong Christians for generations and there are good, Bible believing, godly churches which are mostly African American.
The minimum standard is for our church to always be truly accepting and loving to anyone who attends our church no matter what race they are from. However, I believe that God wants more than just this minimum. The gospel is powerful, and in addition to making a way for God to forgive our sins so that we can be in fellowship with Him, it also is designed to break down walls of hostility between different races:
NIV Ephesians 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
This verse is specifically describing the “dividing wall of hostility” which existed between Jews and Gentiles, but I have no doubt that the same principle applies to whites and blacks.
Here are some questions to think about:
- How can our church, which is mostly white, work together effectively with other gospel believing churches which are mostly black in order to serve our community together in a way that honors Christ and proves to the world that we love one another?
- What types of things can we do to build mutual trust and love and understanding and work intentionally to overcome racial hatred and fears and misunderstanding?
- What can we do to help people from different races feel loved and welcomed in our church?
- Do we have fears about what might happen if a significant number of African Americans joined our church? How might this change us?
- How can we serve and bless and share the Good News about Jesus with our African American neighbors?
**** End of excerpt from vision paper I shared with my previous church *****
I did not know this until much later, but even before the church voted to accept me one of the influential members, who represented a group within the church, strongly opposed me specifically because of this part of my vision. The majority of the church, however, voted to accept me as their pastor.
I thought that with just over 80% voting to call me, I would be alright. In hindsight, this was naïve. Although the group that opposed me was relatively small to begin with, they began an intense campaign of anonymous letters, constant gossip and slander, and other strategies to get rid of me. Several months later they presented a petition to the deacons and the church requesting a vote to remove me. The church held a vote and voted to keep me by a margin of 65 to 28. Again, I thought things would be alright. I was wrong.
The group that lost did not give up. And while the majority of the church did not want to fire me, neither were they willing to take church discipline against those causing disunity, or at least remove those deacons who were against me. It was a small rural church where most people knew each other, and many of their parents and grandparents had known each other. The campaign of gossip and slander continued. There’s much more to the story. A little over two years after arriving, I resigned.
I did not have another job ready, and our family suffered significant financial loss. Several of my supporters left the church when we did, leaving the church firmly in the grip of those who had opposed me. I thank God that He helped me and my family during our transition time and that He led me to my current church.
This Type of Racism is Serious Gospel Damaging Sin
The type of racism I encountered is not as obvious as the type practiced two centuries ago by slave holders, or two generations ago by legal segregation. But it is still a serious sin which damages the gospel.
The attitude was that they would welcome any black person who happened to attend but did not want any efforts to be made to bring black people into the church. They reasoned that the blacks had their own churches. And that is true. So, why is it wrong to have separate churches for black and white?
Thinking that “separate worship and fellowship” is acceptable is a subtle, but very serious, error. Even the Apostle Peter began to fall into this wrong way of thinking. As a result, Paul “opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11). Paul did this because he saw that “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).
Because the gospel makes all believers one in Christ, and because through His sacrifice Christ “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) between races, and because our love should be greater than all the past hurts and all our current fears and foolish pride, whenever we remain divided we are acting in way contrary to the gospel. We hurt our witness for Jesus Christ. The body of Christ suffers and the Great Commission is hindered.
Reasons this Sinful Racism Continues to Plague Churches
Sin is often deeply rooted and not easily removed. This is true in my heart and your heart. It is also true in churches and in communities. There are several factors which contribute to the fact that stories about ugly racism in supposedly Christian churches continue to come to light.
- The sin of racism is often not treated as seriously as sins like homosexuality or drug use. On September 23, 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew fellowship from a church for believing that same sex marriage could be blessed by God (see story here). I believe this action by the SBC was right. When we treat clear examples of racism the same way, we will be on the right path.
- Many churches are willing to accept sins like racism among their overseers. In most SBC churches, the deacons fulfill the role of overseers. Jesus warned the church at Thyatira that tolerating known serious sin in the church is itself a sin (Revelation 2:20). This is especially true when the leaders themselves are sinful.
- Many churches have overseers who lead according to their own ideas and traditions instead of according to God’s Word. These men are not well equipped to explain how the Bible relates to complex situations. This leaves the churches vulnerable to deception and traps of the Devil.
Is there hope? Yes. Our Lord is constantly working to refine and purify His Bride. Although we may tolerate sin sometimes, He never will. He loves us too much.
May He grant you grace, wisdom, courage, and strength as we seek to put off our old selves and be renewed (Ephesian 4:22-24).